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Get Fit to Fight With Kelly McCann’s Combative Conditioning Exercises

“Good to go” is a common military colloquialism indicating readiness. Are you physically good to go for an unexpected, violent street confrontation?

What’s considered adequately fit in regard to defending yourself? How can it be quantified?

On the no-to-low end of the spectrum, some believe fitness is irrelevant because self-defense techniques are supposed to incapacitate an attacker so quickly … “supposed to,” hmm.

That’s a pretty naive perspective.

The results of any self-defense technique are always conditional on the street because of myriad variables that are out of your control. You can’t depend on technique, power and luck always aligning perfectly to achieve a desired outcome; “guaranteed to succeed” is a dangerous appraisal of any technique, tactic or weapon.

Middle-grounders believe fitness is a requirement of self-defense and achieve their personal concept of it in different ways — from running to weightlifting to cross-training. Although well-intentioned and generally fit, some in this group may find that their conditioning program failed to adequately prepare them for the demanding and specific physical requirements of a snot-slinging fight for their life.


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Those who believe fitness is essential and maintain extraordinary levels of it are generally conditioning hounds anyway — whether they practice combatives or not. Even in this group, some may miss the mark in achieving the specific fitness level necessary for a nasty physical confrontation in a parking garage.

Defending yourself generally requires a period of intense physical exertion lasting less than three minutes. There are exceptions, of course — a protracted struggle to prevent a rape in an isolated environment, for example — but street attacks are normally quick, brutal events intended to overwhelm the victim. They tend not to be slow, sustained incidents requiring “long distance” physical endurance. During an attack, you’ll rely primarily on fast-twitch muscles for speed, power and plyometric explosiveness.

Basically, fast-twitch muscles use on your body’s glycogen stores for energy during short periods of intense exertion and will fatigue quickly. Conversely, slow-twitch muscles use fat stores to provide sustained energy throughout prolonged periods of lower-intensity work and fatigue more slowly.

It’s important to understand how attacks occur, as well as how your body will physiologically respond in order to develop task-specific fitness goals. By tweaking your conditioning program, you can effectively and efficiently achieve “street fight” fitness in addition to greater general fitness. I believe street-fight fitness is best achieved through intense anaerobic interval training, but I also believe aerobic endurance training is still a requirement for general fitness.


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An easy way to distinguish the two is by measuring your heart rate. It’s helpful to get a heart-rate monitor. They’re inexpensive and take the guesswork out of reaching and maintaining your target rate. Get a model with a large readout so you can attach it somewhere other than your wrist in the event you glove up to hit the heavy bag or spar.

An accurate method for determining your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220. So if you’re 40, it’s 220 – 40 = 180. Low-intensity aerobic work keeps your heart beating at 65 percent of your maximum, or 180 x .65 = 117 beats per minute. In contrast, intense exertion is anaerobic at 85 percent to 95 percent of your max: 180 x .85 (or .95) = 153 (171) BPM.

An aerobic routine puts you in the zone to burn fat efficiently, is easy to sustain for long periods and can be used on your off days as a recovery workout. An anaerobic routine is much shorter in length, is also beneficial for fat burning (in the hours following your workout), requires more recovery time and is more characteristic of the physical requirements of a brawl.

If you don’t exercise, put the Twinkie down and get off your ass.

Confirm your suitability to exercise with your physician, then get after it. If you do train but want to tweak your routine to specifically address overcoming physical failure during a violent street confrontation, try including either short-duration, high-intensity interval routines or long-duration aerobic activity at least twice a week to balance out your training.

I train four days a week, using both high-intensity interval and low-intensity endurance routines. I’m satisfied this approach is balanced, avoids overtraining, and ensures full-body fitness and task-specific, street-fight fitness.

By the way, reliance on gross-motor movements in a donnybrook is important. Above 170 BPM, it becomes difficult to perform complex, complicated or intricate-motor movements. By using combative techniques to achieve and maintain your target heart rate during interval training, you enjoy the added benefit of reinforcing your motor memory.

Arduous physical workouts also provide the intangible mental benefit of preparing you to endure pain and discomfort. The commitment necessary to maintain a consistently challenging fitness program develops your determination to prevail and generally “mans you up” — never a bad thing.

The motto of one of the special-operations units I was a member of is a Latin expression that means “prepare for the worst.” Of course, your intention is to succeed, but you should always consider failure and do everything you can in training to maximize any available advantage. Being fit is a clear advantage that you’re always likely to enjoy over “Carl the Crackhead” or “Tim the Tweaker.”

Combatives Workout Routine: Monday


Cross-training, stretching. 20-minute aerobic warm-up run followed by anaerobic pyramid calisthenics of five to 10 varied exercises with or without weights. (1 rep, 2 reps, 3 reps … 10 reps, then 9, 8, 7 …). Design your routine using exercises that will cumulatively exercise your whole body. Finish with short, intense wind sprints. Stretch as you cool down.

Combatives Workout Routine: Tuesday

Aerobic endurance training, stretching. 40-minute run at no higher than 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Stretch as you cool down.
Alternative: Stretch. Walk up a flight of stairs two at a time, then walk down. Repeat until you reach your target heart rate, resting only when necessary to maintain it. Exercise for 40 minutes. Stretch as you cool down.

Combatives Workout Routine: Wednesday

Interval training, body thrash. Limit your workout to 20 to 30 minutes of high-intensity intervals that surge your heart rate to at least 85 percent of your max. Stretch first. Sprint to reach your target rate, then perform arduous functional-movement exercises for three minutes. Rest for 30 seconds to one minute between exercises. When you achieve a higher fitness level, extend the three-minute exercise periods to failure. Rest. Then perform another exercise to failure. Maintaining form despite being fatigued will prevent injury.

Examples: Smashing a tractor tire with a sledgehammer, flipping a tractor tire over and over, carrying a body bag on your shoulder up and down stairs, step-ups (18-22 inches), throwing a 12-pound medicine ball against a point on a wall 10 feet high, bouncing a 12-pound rubberized ball as hard as you can, doing standing broad jumps, executing kettlebell routines and doing intense heavy-bag drills. Don’t forget to stretch during cool-down.

Combatives Workout Routine: Thursday

Rest and recovery.

Combatives Workout Routine: Friday

Task-specific cross-training, stretching. Anaerobic run (75 percent of maximum heart rate) for 20 minutes. No cool-down. Using a striking dummy or other training aid, do 10 full-power strikes of each type (hand, elbow, knee and kicks) with the your right side, rest 30 seconds, do 10 with your left side, rest 30 seconds and so on. Rest one minute. 10- to 15-minute grappling session. If you don’t have a partner, use a grappling dummy or unattached heavy bag. Cool-down stretch.

Remember that physical-fitness training is undertaken in addition to your combatives training. Consistency is key. The most important workouts happen when you don’t feel like working out. Don’t be a punk, suck it up and get some.


About the Author:
A former officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, Kelly McCann has studied and taught combatives for 25 years. His company, Crucible, provides training to U.S. government, law-enforcement and military personnel. For more of Kelly McCann’s hard-hitting combatives instruction in print and on video, check out these best-selling products:

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  1. Michael says

    First of all, I want to say I love the workout and I think that fitness is great and I do strive for top performance myself. However, I believe for a skilled fighter that level of fitness is not necessary unless you are fighting in the MMA. You should never be brawling on the street for 3 minutes. An altercation should never last more than 5 to 7 seconds, in general. Of course it is always situational but If your self defense skills aren’t incapacitating your attackers then perhaps it’s time to spend less time in the gym and more time learning techniques that work. Otherwise no matter how great your fitness is, you’re DEAD on the street, unless you are sprinting away from your attacker.

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